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Michelle Obama: Biography, First Lady, Philanthropist

1964-present

Latest News: Michelle Obama Wins Second Grammy Award

Talk about a talented former first family!

Michelle Obama won her second Grammy Award on Sunday—equaling her husband and former President Barack Obama—in the Best Audiobook, Narration, and Storytelling Recording category for The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times. Other nominees included actors Meryl Streep and William Shatner, Senator Bernie Sanders, and record executive Rick Rubin.

Michelle Obama, 60, was not in attendance in Los Angeles, where the award was announced during the Grammys pre-show on Sunday afternoon. She previously won in the same category for the audio version of her 2018 memoir Becoming.

Barack previously received two Grammys for Best Spoken Word Album for Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

Who Is Michelle Obama?

Michelle Obama is a lawyer, writer, and philanthropist who was the first lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She was the first Black woman to hold this position. Michelle is the wife of America’s 44th president, Barack Obama. As first lady, Obama focused her attention on social issues such as poverty, healthy living, and education. She won a Grammy Award for her 2018 memoir, Becoming, which discusses the experiences that shaped her, from her childhood in Chicago to her years living in the White House.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama
BORN: January 17, 1964
BIRTHPLACE: Chicago, Illinois
SPOUSE: Barack Obama (1992-present)
CHILDREN: Malia and Sasha
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Capricorn

Early Life

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago. Her father, Fraser Robinson, was a city-pump operator and a Democratic precinct captain. Her mother, Marian, was a secretary at Spiegel’s catalog store but later stayed home to raise Michelle and her older brother, Craig. At 21 months apart in age, Craig and Michelle were often mistaken for twins.

The Robinson family lived in a small bungalow on Chicago’s South Side. Michelle and Craig shared quarters, sleeping in the living room with a sheet serving as a makeshift room divider. They were a close-knit family, typically sharing meals, reading, and playing games together. She later said of her childhood: “I had a very stable, conventional upbringing, and that felt very safe to me.”

Education

Raised with an emphasis on education, both Michelle and her brother learned to read at home by age 4. Both skipped the second grade. By the sixth grade, Michelle was taking classes in her school’s gifted program, where she learned French and completed accelerated courses in biology. Michelle went on to attend Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, the city’s first magnet high school for gifted children, where, among other activities, she served as the student government treasurer. She graduated in 1981 as class salutatorian.

Following in her older brother’s footsteps, Michelle applied for Princeton University. Some teachers tried to dissuade her from applying, telling her she would never get accepted: “Some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high.” Nevertheless, she was accepted, and ultimately graduated cum laude in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Michelle went on to study law at Harvard Law School, where she took part in demonstrations calling for the enrollment and hiring of more minority students and professors. She was awarded her juris doctor in 1988.

Career in Law and Public Service

After graduating law school in 1988, Michelle worked as an associate in the Chicago branch of the firm Sidley Austin. Her focus was marketing and intellectual property. In 1991, she left corporate law to pursue a career in public service, working as an assistant to Mayor Richard Daley and then as the assistant commissioner of planning and development for the City of Chicago. In 1993, Michelle became executive director for the Chicago office of Public Allies, a nonprofit leadership-training program that helps young adults develop skills for future careers in the public sector.

In 1996, Michelle joined the University of Chicago as associate dean of student services, developing the school’s first community-service program. Beginning in 2002, she worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals as executive director of community relations and external affairs. In May 2005, Michelle was appointed vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she continued to work part-time until shortly before her husband’s inauguration as president. She also served as a board member for the prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Marriage to Barack Obama and Daughters

standing on a stage in front of a podium, michelle embraces malia obama from behind while barack obama waves his hand in the air above sasha obama

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Michelle and Barack Obama with their daughters, Malia and Sasha, attend a campaign event in Indianapolis on May 3, 2008.

Michelle met Barack Obama in 1989 at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin. He was a summer intern, and Michelle was assigned to him as an adviser. They were among the few Black people working at the firm at the time. Initially, Michelle refused to date Barack, believing that their work relationship would make the romance improper. She eventually relented, however, and the couple soon fell in love.

Barack described their early relationship as an “opposites attract” situation because he had a different background and a more adventurous personality than Michelle. After two years of dating, Barack proposed, and the two married on October 3, 1992.

The couple has two daughters: Malia, born in 1998, and Sasha, born in 2001. Both Michelle and Barack have stated that their personal priority is their children. The Obamas tried to make their daughters’ world as “normal” as possible while living in the White House, with set times for studying, going to bed and getting up. “My first priority will always be to make sure that our girls are healthy and grounded,” Michelle has said. “Then I want to help other families get the support they need, not just to survive, but to thrive.”

Campaigning for Her Husband

barack and michelle obama wave to supporters on a stage, standing next to joe and jill biden raising their hands in the air

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President-elect Barack Obama with Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Vice President–elect Joe Biden after Obama gave his victory speech on November 4, 2008, in Chicago

Obama had long known her husband might pursue a political career and said in as early as 1996: “I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism.” She opposed Barack’s decision to run for the U.S. House of Representatives but nevertheless campaigned for him during his unsuccessful primary campaign in 2000. She first caught the eye of a national audience while at her husband’s side when he delivered a high-profile speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Barack was elected as U.S. Senator from Illinois that November.

As her husband’s political role pushed the family into the spotlight, Michelle was publicly recognized for her no-nonsense campaign style as well as her sense of fashion. In May 2006, she was featured in Essence magazine as one of “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women.” In September 2007, Michelle was included in 02138 magazine as number 58 in “The Harvard 100,” a yearly list of the school’s most influential alumni. She also twice appeared on the cover of Vogue and made the Vanity Fair best-dressed list two years in a row as well as People magazine’s 2008 best-dressed list.

Michelle had reservations about Barack’s decision to run for president, too; she worried about how it would affect their daughters. Those concerns proved unfounded, as Michelle said they “could care less” about the campaign. In 2007, Michelle scaled back her own professional work to attend to family and campaign obligations during Barack’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination. When they were out on the trail, they would leave their daughters with Michelle’s mother, Marian. Barack won the nomination and later defeated Republican challenger John McCain in the general election to become the 44th president of the United States. He was inaugurated on January 20, 2009.

barack obama raises his right hand as his left hand rests on a bible that michelle obama holds for his inauguration, both are looking at supreme court justice john roberts

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Michelle Obama holds the bible as her husband, Barack Obama, is sworn in as the 44th U.S. president by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on January 20, 2009.

When her husband sought reelection in 2012, facing a challenging race against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Michelle diligently campaigned on his behalf. By this time, she had a more established public image and was widely popular. Politico described her as “the most popular member of the Obama administration” and an invaluable asset when it comes to raising money and delivering speeches. She traveled the country, giving talks and making public appearances. On November 6, 2012, Barack was re-elected for a second term.

Causes and Accomplishments as First Lady

michelle obama works with students in the white house vegetable garden

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First Lady Michelle Obama harvests vegetables from the White House Kitchen Garden with students from a metro area school on June 4, 2010.

As first lady of the United States, Michelle focused her attention on issues such as the support of military families, helping working women balance career and family, and encouraging national service. During the first year of the Obama presidency, Michelle and Barack volunteered at homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the Washington, D.C. area. Michelle also made appearances at public schools, stressing the importance of education and volunteer work.

Ever conscious of her family’s diet and health, Michelle supported the organic-food movement, instructing the White House kitchens to prepare organic food for guests and her family. In March 2009, Michelle worked with 23 fifth graders from a Washington, D.C. school to plant an 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden and install beehives on the South Lawn of the White House. The garden expanded its footprint throughout the Obama administration, and Michelle continued to host events with schoolchildren there. She also put reducing childhood obesity near the top of her agenda.

Michelle remained committed to health and wellness causes throughout her time as first lady. In 2012, she announced a new fitness program for kids as part of her Let’s Move initiative. Along with the U.S. Olympic team and other sports organizations, she worked to get young people to try out a new sport or activity. She also released a book as part of her mission to promote healthy eating called American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (2012), which included her own experience creating a vegetable garden as well as the work of community gardens elsewhere.

Notable Speeches

michelle obama, wearing a pink dress, speaking into a camera, with a blue and white backdrop behind her

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Michelle Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention on September 4, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Throughout her career, Obama has given a number of powerful speeches. In September 2012, she delivered a noteworthy speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Every day, the people I meet inspire me, every day they make me proud, every day they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth,” she said. “Serving as your first lady is an honor and a privilege.” Obama won both public and critical praise for her narrative, called a “shining moment” by The Washington Post.

In July 2016, Michelle campaigned in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. When Clinton was named the Democratic presidential nominee, she became the first woman in the country’s history to win a major political party’s presidential nomination. On the first night of the convention, Michelle spoke in support of Clinton, who had previously run against Barack during the 2008 primaries, and Clinton’s vision of a progressive America.

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, Black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said. “And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters, and all our sons and daughters, now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.” During the same speech, Michelle alluded to the behavior of Clinton’s Republican challenger Donald Trump, saying her party would not stoop to his level, with the famous phrase: “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

On January 13, 2017, Michelle made her final speech as first lady at the White House, saying “being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud.” In an emotional moment, she addressed young Americans:

“I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong. So don’t be afraid. You hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education. Then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope; never fear.”

Obama Foundation

michelle and barack obama wave and smile to the off camera audience and stand in front of a colorful logo and the words obama foundation summit

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Michelle and Barack Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit in October 2019

In 2014, Barack and Michelle established the Obama Foundation that is overseeing the creation of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s South Side. The nonprofit also runs numerous programs aligned with its mission “to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.” Michelle is particularly involved with the foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, which supports education for girls around the world.

Books and Podcasts

a man holds open a copy of the michelle obama book becoming, in a bookstore, while standing next to a large cardboard image of the book cover

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A bookstore display of the Portuguese edition of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming.

On November 13, 2018, Michelle published her critically acclaimed memoir, Becoming. Describing the “deeply personal experience” of writing the book, she tweeted: “I talk about my roots and how a girl from the South Side found her voice. I hope my journey inspires readers to find the courage to become whoever they aspire to be.” In just 15 days, it became the best-selling book in the United States for the year 2018 and also became a bestseller in several other countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa. In 2020, Michelle won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for the audiobook version of Becoming.

Michelle published a second book in 2022 called The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times. In it, Michelle shared the contents of what she described as her “personal toolbox,” including attitudes, habits, and practices used to overcome feelings of fear, helplessness, and uncertainty. In particular, it addressed the “low-grade form” of depression that gripped the nation during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michelle premiered a podcast in 2020 called The Michelle Obama Podcast. Podcast critic Nicholas Quah of Vulture said it explored similar themes as the former first lady’s memoir Becoming, calling it entertaining and writing that he was “deeply moved and taken by its comforts, so parched am I for any modicum of moral leadership in the public sphere.” In March 2023, Michelle launched Michelle Obama: The Light Podcast, to accompany her book The Light We Carry.

In February 2024, the audiobook version of The Light We Carry earned Obama her second Grammy Award.

Partnership with Netflix

In May 2018, Michelle and Barack announced that they signed a multi-year deal to produce TV series and films for Netflix through their company, Higher Ground Productions. “Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us,” the former First Lady said in a statement.

Their first joint effort resulted in Netflix’s release of American Factory (2019), a documentary about the 2015 launch of a Chinese-owned automotive glass factory in Dayton, Ohio, and the clash of differing cultures and business interests. A hit with critics, American Factory earned an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in February 2020. Michelle was an executive producer and presenter on the Netflix children’s cooking series Waffles + Mochi. Additionally, Netflix and Higher Ground Productions partnered on the documentary Becoming (2020), based upon Michelle’s memoir of the same name.

Quotes

  • Every day, the people I meet inspire me. Every day, they make me proud. Every day, they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on Earth. Serving as your first lady is an honor and a privilege.
  • When I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.
  • Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.
  • One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals.
  • I have the privilege of working on the issues that I choose and the issues that I feel most passionate about.
  • These are the moments that define us—not the day you get the promotion, not the day you win teacher of the year, but the times that force you to claw and scratch and fight just to get through the day; the moments when you get knocked down and you’re wondering whether it’s even worth it to get back up. Those are the times when you’ve got to ask yourself, “Who am I going to be?”
  • That’s what’s always made this country great—embracing the diversity of experience and opinion that surrounds us everywhere we go.
  • The only difference between me and every other woman that I know is that my challenges are publicized, and I’m doing this juggling in front of cameras.
  • We should always have three friends in our lives: one who walks ahead who we look up to and we follow; one who walks beside us, who is with us every step of our journeys; and then, one who we reach back for and we bring along after we’ve cleared the way.
  • People told me, ‘You can do it all. Just stay the course, get your education, and you can raise a child, stay thin, be in shape, love your man, look good, and raise healthy children.’ That was a lie.
  • Exercise is really important to me—it’s therapeutic. So if I’m ever feeling tense or stressed or like I’m about to have a meltdown, I’ll put on my iPod and head to the gym or out on a bike ride along Lake Michigan with the girls.
  • It would be hard for me to edit myself and still be me.
  • We learned about dignity and decency—that how hard you work matters more than how much you make… that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.
  • As women, we must stand up for ourselves. As women, we must stand up for each other. As women, we must stand up for justice for all.

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